Japan Spring Elegance in pictures

My 2 week Spring Elegance tour around Honshu Island leading, 14 eager travellers from Switzerland, Germany, Australia, the US, Poland, Ukraine and the UK coincided with the stunning cherry blossom season. Here are a few of my favourite snapshots of a rewarding fortnight on the road, showing great people this great country!!

 

Tokyo’s Skytree, 634m of steel, concrete and glass – a striking feature of the capital’s skyline from many a district. Undoubtedly not the most aesthetically pleasing of architectural creations, a little sakura framing, however, creates an image of harmony in this sea of 33 million people.

Tokyo’s Skytree, 634m of steel, concrete and glass – a striking feature of the capital’s skyline from many a district. Undoubtedly not the most aesthetically pleasing of architectural creations, a little sakura framing, however, creates an image of harmony in this sea of 33 million people.

 

Tokyo Japan

Ueno district – market madness, where pickled giant octopus tentacles are on offer next to discount watches, traditional green tea, fish flakes, funky footwear and multi-coloured golf balls. Galleries and museums, a favourite sprawling park with gorgeous summer lotus pond and even a zoo make this another hotspot on any Tokyo itinerary. Here, Ueno Station’s main concourse pays tribute to its 2 most esteemed residents – the cherry blossoms of Ueno Park and the pandas of Ueno Zoo.

Architecturally - the most perfect historic building in Japan? Matsumoto Castle in full spring elegance – a glorious symbol of this wonderful little city perched on the plains to the east of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Architecturally – the most perfect historic building in Japan. Matsumoto Castle in full spring elegance – a glorious symbol of this wonderful little city perched on the plains to the east of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Springtime is a popular time to have the wedding photos taken, even if the ceremony is a long way off. This charming young couple were off, with photographer and assistant in tow, to the castle grounds of Matsumoto for those once-in-a-lifetime romantic shots.

Springtime is a popular time to have the wedding photos taken, even if the ceremony is a long way off. This charming young couple were off, with photographer and assistant in tow, to the castle grounds of Matsumoto for those once-in-a-lifetime romantic shots.

One of the key 6 features of the Kenrokuen, arguably Japan's finest strolling garden, is the incorporation of water in its layout. The falling sakura petals often fall and are clustered on the surface of the shallow streams which serenely trickle their way beneath beautifully sculpted pines or amongst the lilies.

One of the key  features of Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, arguably Japan’s finest strolling garden, is the incorporation of water in its layout. The sakura petals often fall and are clustered on the surface of the shallow streams which serenely trickle their way beneath beautifully sculpted pines or amongst the lilies.

Kanazawa, within the former samurai domain of Kaga, is rich in tea ceremony history, its patronage of Noh Theatre, local crafts and a wonderfully rich seafood cuisine. Here, some of our small group travellers sample the delights of Kaitenzushi – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Edo Period Omicho Market, ordering by touch panel menus!

Kanazawa, within the former samurai domain of Kaga, is rich in tea ceremony history, its patronage of Noh Theatre, local crafts and a wonderfully rich seafood cuisine. Here, some of our small group travellers sample the delights of Kaitenzushi – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Edo Period Omicho Market, ordering by touch panel menus!

A proud local inspects his district’s float during Takayama’s  Sanno Matsuri, held April 14th and 15th of every year to offer prayers for the rice cultivating season. The parading of these centuries-old floats, adorned with gold, the finest lacquer finish and exquisite woodcarvings, is a highlight of the festivities.

A proud local inspects his district’s float during Takayama’s Sanno Matsuri, held April 14th and 15th of every year to offer prayers for the rice cultivating season. The parading of these centuries-old floats, adorned with gold, the finest lacquer finish and exquisite woodcarvings, is a highlight of the festivities.

Who would think that just 10 minutes from the lively centre of Takayama, home to the fabulous Spring and Summer float festivals, you could find yourself in such gloriously secluded nature? This is my favourite, and certainly least expected shot of the trip. A quiet mid-morning walk on Shiroyama Hill.

Who would think that just 10 minutes from the lively centre of Takayama, home to the fabulous Spring and Summer float festivals, you could find yourself in such gloriously secluded nature? This is my favourite, and certainly least expected shot of the trip. A quiet mid-morning walk on Shiroyama Hill.

Personally, of all the places in Japan that I regularly visit with groups – the ever-popular Ginkaku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, with its (non) Silver Pavilion and mesmerizingly calming gardens is among Japan’s most beautiful places. Even if crowded, serenity pervades all – if it fails first time round, do a second lap of the gardens, as the friendly temple staff will eagerly encourage you. Wherever you turn  another glimpse of beauty awaits!

Personally, of all the places in Japan that I regularly visit with groups – the ever-popular Ginkaku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, with its (non) Silver Pavilion and mesmerizingly calming gardens is among Japan’s most beautiful places. Even if crowded, serenity pervades all – if it fails first time round, do a second lap of the gardens, as the friendly temple staff will eagerly encourage you. Wherever you turn another glimpse of beauty awaits!

Together alone at last – a couple enjoy the solitude of early morning Ginkakuji Temple. How did they make it across that sand without leaving footprints? A spiritual journey, deep into Zen, indeed!

Together alone at last – a couple enjoy the solitude of early morning Ginkakuji Temple. How did they make it across that sand without leaving footprints? A spiritual journey, deep into Zen, indeed!

Kyoto Japan

Two seafood-loving customers chomp on baby octopus stuffed with quail’s egg – on a stick. Snack hunting Kyoto style, in the intriguing Nishiki Food Market, where every shop and stall reveals a new Japanese culinary delight!

The unashamed western opulence of the Fujiya Hotel is beautifully enhanced by its Japanese garden – featuring waterwheel, lanterns, streams and cascades. The perfect start to a busy day in Hakone? Looking down over the garden to the borrowed scenery of Hakone’s verdant hills beyond (actually a crater rim!). Then onto a day of volcanic landscapes, azul Lake Ashi, ancient Samurai Highways and, fingers crossed, spectacular views of Mt Fuji, resplendent in her white veil of snow. No luck this time but as you can see, Hakone has so much natural splendour to offer!

The unashamed western opulence of the Fujiya Hotel is beautifully enhanced by its Japanese garden – featuring waterwheel, lanterns, streams and cascades. The perfect start to a busy day in Hakone? Looking down over the garden to the borrowed scenery of Hakone’s verdant hills beyond (actually a crater rim!). Then onto a day of volcanic landscapes, azul Lake Ashi, ancient Samurai Highways and, fingers crossed, spectacular views of Mt Fuji, resplendent in her white veil of snow. No luck this time but as you can see, Hakone has so much natural splendour to offer!

Staying at the Asakusa View Hotel is always a treat. East or West facing, you are always sure to enjoy a spectacular view from your bedroom window. As dusk draws in, the frenetic energy of this popular tourist area, renowned for the bustling Sensoji Temple and surrounding traditional shops and eateries, fades into the calming orange hue of Tokyo’s cityscape as it bows towards the setting sun.

Staying at the Asakusa View Hotel is always a treat. East or West facing, you are always sure to enjoy a spectacular view from your bedroom window. As dusk draws in, the frenetic energy of this popular tourist area, renowned for the bustling Sensoji Temple and surrounding traditional shops and eateries, fades into the calming orange hue of Tokyo’s cityscape as it bows towards the setting sun.

Japanese chocolate

With less than 1% of Japan being Christian, the Japanese people generally, do not tend celebrate Easter, they do however love chocolate – so we thought we’d take this opportunity to take a look at a few of the countries most popular chocy treats!

Although not a Japanese brand, the country is famed for its multitude of “interesting” KitKat flavourings. “Red Bean Sandwich, Green Tea, Purple Sweet Potato and Cherry Blossom flavours are all available….

KitKat Japan KitKat Japan

You can now even cook KitKat and there has even bee a KitKat Pizza developed…

Another favourite is Crunky, (surely they could have called it Crunchy!), which, amongst many others comes in Green Tea, Chestnut and Roasted Potato flavours!

Crunky Chocolate

Crunky Chocolate

 Royce Chocolate World can be found in Sapporo, where visitors are free to visit the factory and watch the famed chocolate crisp take form.

Royce Chocolate

There is even a hotel in Tokyo (The Lotte City Hotel) that has a whole room dedicated to Koala’s Marches -  a bite-size cookie with a chocolate filling.

Koalas Marches

Koalas Marches

If staying in a chocolate hotel is not enough for you, how about taking a bath in it?

As well as green tea baths and red wine hot springs, Hakone’s Yunessun ‘onsen theme park’ has a bath full of hot chocolate! You literally wallow in chocolate.

Japanese chocolate is a lot more imaginative when it comes to shapes – one of the most popular snacks are Mushroom Mountains, followed by Every Burger, Pucca (fish shaped chocolate snacks) and even chocolate monkey poo drops..

Mushroom Mountains

Every Burger

Pucca Chocolate

Monkey Poo Chocolate Drops

So Japan is not just about sushi and umami falvours.. if Easter was celebrated I wonder what they’d come up with?!

Travelling Japan

We have a lot of people travel with us each year,  and a LOT of them travel during the peak cherry blossom period from the end of March to Mid-April. Many people get a taste for the main sights such as Tokyo and Kyoto. However, the Rowes decided to do a BIG Japan trip.

A Ryokan Stay

The trip involved the Rowes diving in the subtropics of the Okinawa islands, travelling up through volcanoc Kyushu, hiking along the mountainous pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo and into the Japanese Alps. They have provided us with a couple of pics as they go, which demonstrate the variety of landscapes they encountered across Japan. Here are those pictures. Thanks for sharing and enjoy!

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Cool things to do in Tokyo – 47 Ronin

Amy from Inside Japan’s US office was recently travelling around Japan doing a bit of research. We all know Tokyo pretty well, but there is always something new to discover….even if it is old….

As visitors soon discover, Tokyo is a big place—it would take decades of sightseeing and wandering to say that you had seen everything it had to offer, and even then you will have been defeated as something is always opening or closing or “under renewal.” As a one-time resident and now re-occurring tourist, I like to mix and match my time in Tokyo so that I see my favorite spots, or places I have good memories of, with ones that I’ve never seen.

You may have heard of the 47 Ronin…even if it is only the recent Keanu Reeves version of the classic Japanese mpvie.

 

Inspired by recent client requests for samurai-related places in Tokyo, I made the trek out to Sengakuji Temple, better known as the final resting place of the “47 Ronin.” Like most places in Tokyo, the original temple burned down during World War Two, but fortunately the graveyard survived intact and is about 300 years old.

47 Ronin - Tokyo‘Trek’ is a bit misleading, though, as the temple is located just about 5 minutes on foot from Sengakuji Station on the Toei Asakusa subway and was easy to find after I stopped following people going to a nearby graduation ceremony. I had the temple almost to myself as it was Sunday, so I could wander as I pleased trying to decipher all the Japanese information (only later did I find the English pamphlet, sold alongside the incense, for a very reasonable 10yen). With this in hand, I found out that not only was this the temple where the 47 Ronin had brought the head of enemy lord to present before the grave of their former lord (washing it in the well), but also that the trees just beginning to bloom were, in fact, NOT sakura but plum trees, to my immense consternation as I had taken about 20 pictures of them. Thank goodness I had the pamphlet to save me from disgrace of announcing wrongfully that the sakura were blooming in Tokyo—best 10yen I’ve ever spent.

47 Ronin - Tokyo

There’s also a memorial museum on the grounds dedicated to the 47 Ronin (or ‘Ako Gishi’ as they’re called in Japanese). If you wasnt added ambience, visit in December for the festival remembering the 47 Ronin.

 

 

Inuyama Matsuri – Blossom and festivals

Last weekend, Nate, Pepijn and I (all from the IJT Nagoya office!) headed to Inuyama festival (犬山祭り). Inuyama is a town just 20 minutes train journey from Nagoya, and is rapidly growing into a really vibrant tourist destination. It is home to Japan’s oldest castle (Well, sort of! Construction actually began on Matsumoto castle before Inuyama, but Inuyama was completed first – you decide which takes the prize!).

View from the top of Inuyama castle

View from the top of Inuyama castle

Leading through the town centre from the castle is a lovely street lined with Edo-style frontages housing a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and museums. On an ordinary day this is pleasantly quiet, but during the festival it was packed to the gills with people. Food stalls, or “yatai,” line the streets all the way from Inuyama Station to the castle, selling everything from chocolate-coated bananas and chicken skewers to delicious “dango” dumplings and bean-paste mochi. Of course, we made sure to take advantage of the full range of culinary offerings – and were even forcibly bought a round of beers by a strange old Japanese man. Bonus!

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

Ready to roll: the festival floats after being hung with their lanterns

We tried our hand at throwing ninja shuriken (throwing stars), and I think it’s probably safe to say that I’m never going to qualify as a ninja, as much as it pains me to admit it. Childhood dream smashed. There were also a couple of stalls where you could win your own baby terrapin – a far cry from the goldfish-in-a-bag combo of my own childhood!

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Finally, when twilight came, the huge, lantern-laden floats that are the real focus of the festival were paraded through the streets. At the very top of the floats are “karakuri” puppets, which you inspect up close at the museum of Japanese toys on the approach to the castle, and at the bottom tier were children chanting and banging drums to the tune of eerie flute music. The costumes they were are incredibly elaborate, and can cost millions of yen. Most impressively of all, however, each float was decorated with hundreds of lanterns, each lit with a real candle – no cheating here!

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Children being carried towards the floats before the parade begins

Parade in full swing

Parade in full swing

The castle, which has just finished undergoing refurbishment, was also looking very photogenic in the floodlights, surrounded by sakura.

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Inuyama festival, though becoming steadily more and more frequented, has yet to reach the heights of popularity attained by similar events such as Takayama festival, but it’s every bit as good. If you’re staying in Nagoya or anywhere nearby during April, make sure you come down and check it out!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

Sakura by the light of the festival lanterns. Beautiful!

My Favourite place in Japan – Halley Trujillo

Halley is one of our star team members, currently based in the Boulder office, but soon to be based back in Japan and our Nagoya office. Like all at InsideJapan, Halley spent a number of years living and working over there. It’s no surprise that the places that we’ve lived during our time in Japan, have an influence over us with regards to our favourite place in the country. Halley is no different. So, here’s Halley’s favourite place in Japan….

Halley

Only a 1 hour train ride separates the bustling metropolis of Nagoya and the peaceful mountain town of Komono. Nestled within the Suzuka Mountain Range in northern Mie Prefecture, Komono offers a refreshing wealth of nature.

Komono

Upon arrival, Mt. Gozaisho greets you on the west as the crisp clean air rejuvenates city worn travelers. The town motto of “Genki up!”  or “High Energy!” describes this burst of vitality and is embodied by Komono locals. When encountered, they will gladly take you to the see the view from the top of town hall then get to know you while soaking in the free footbaths. If you’re lucky they will take you to a café to try makomo desserts made from Komono’s namesake grass root, just don’t let the green color put you off! It is well known that Komono locals are very excited to share their beloved hometown.

Komono lifeYou will be excited yourself when heading toward the mountain area of Yunoyama Onsen. Adventurous hiking routes snake up Mt. Gozaisho with a rewarding view at the top for challengers. There is also the option to enjoy the scenery as you ride the longest ropeway in Japan up the rocky slope. Be sure to keep an eye out for the elusive kamoshika deer and monkeys. Once you reach the peak, you can appreciate the breathtaking 360 degree view where on clear days it is even rumored you can see all the way to Mt. Fuji! While at the summit, you can enjoy outdoor activities and the seasonal sights of stunning spring wild flowers, fiery autumn colors and wintry ice sculptures.

Komono OnsenWhether coming down from a hike or ropeway journey, you will surely enjoy relaxing in one of the hot springs awaiting you. The historical “Kibousou” hot spring offers an unbeatable mountain night view. If you are looking for a modern hot spring experience, the recently renewed “Iqua x Ignis” offers a chic new feel to onsen. Next door is a delicious world renowned bakery that offers a variety of locally inspired unique cakes and sweets. They sell out quickly, so line up early to get a taste!

Komono FestivalsNo doubt that Komono is most spirited during its festivals throughout the year. The “Touka festival” in July is a display of teamwork where individually designed lanterns are combined to create an inspiring illumination. This is paired with the big town obon dance to celebrate those who have passed and keep them connected. Komono’s most famous festival is the “Souhei Festival” in October. Good fortune is brought to businesses along the mountain slope as a shrine set aflame is carried up by local young men. True town spirit is felt through the bravery and strength the men show.

Komono StrengthThough not yet well known throughout worldwide or even within Japan, Komono is undoubtedly worthy of the pride felt by its citizens. With gorgeous scenery, delicious treats, and unmatched spirit, Komono offers something for mind, body and soul. Please come and genki up in Komono!

A Cock and Boob Story

Everyone knows how much the Japanese love their festivals – from the biggest tug-of-war in the world Okinawa to setting an entire mountain on fire in Nara. According to my sources, there are probably about 200,000 festivals held in Japan each year. This seems a reasonable – perhaps even a conservative – estimate if you take into account that there are about 100,000 shrines and temples in Japan and each holds at least 1 festival and up to 70 festivals per year. And that’s not even including all the national and local festivals.

There are naked festivals (Hadaka Matsuri) where thousands of naked men scramble over each other to grab a pair of lucky sticks; snow festivals (Yuki Matsuri) with amazing snow sculptures; a whole bunch of fire festivals (which I wrote about here a few weeks ago); festivals where sumo wrestlers hold up babies to see which one will cry first while priests try to scare them; a belly-button festival in Hokkaido where participants paint faces on their stomachs and hide their heads under giant hats… there is even a festival where a sumo wrestler has a sumo match with the spirit of the rice plant (AKA with himself).

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you'll never look at them in the same way again...

You know those nicely decorated wooden plaques (Ema 絵馬) that you write wishes on at Shinto shrines? Well you’ll never look at them in the same way again…

A few weekends ago, I discovered that not only was there a Fertility “penis” Festival happening only a few minutes away by train from Nagoya – but that it was in the very same town as the boob temple I have been meaning to visit ever since I got here! There could be no better reason for combining two types of sexual-organ-themed entertainment in one day, so off I trotted to the unassuming, genitalia-loving town of Komaki.

The blueprint for Japanese festivals is essentially: stuff your face with food from all the stalls that spring up around the temple, mill around for a bit, then watch a parade – and this one was no different. Except that the food was shaped like willies and instead of praying to your standard altar, you were praying to a giant wooden penis.
The parade itself had everything I could have wished for from a penis parade. After the various old men dressed in traditional clothing and throwing salt around the place, there was this guy:

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There were young ladies cradling wooden willies and inviting members of the crowd to stroke them for luck:

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There was this extraordinary banner, slowly undulating in the wind:

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And finally, the piece de resistance, a giant wooden penis being carried in its own portable shrine, which every so often would be swung around wildly on the spot by its bearers:

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Oh, and there were also people giving out free sake. Perfect.

After all that excitement we still had the Boob Shrine (Mamma Kannon) to look forward to! And this was perhaps even stranger. Anyone who has been to Japan will know that shrines dedicated to penises are really not that unusual, but this appears to be the only temple in the whole of Japan that is dedicated to the humble woman’s breasts.

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After passing these delightful lactating ladies, the rest was basically standard temple fare – but boob-themed. The way to worship here seemed to be to kneel down in front of a pair of granite boobies, massage them with a sort of brush-like object and then touch it on your own head. People seemed to be taking it very seriously, anyway.

Mamma Kannon’s “Ema” were, of course, breast- and fertility-themed too. Some were hoping for a healthy baby or for a relative’s safe recovery from breast cancer, but most of them just seemed to be requests to the boob-gods for more covetable chesticles.

Mamma Kannon's collection of "Ema"

Mamma Kannon’s collection of “Ema”

A typical "ema"

A typical “ema”

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups...

A shrine patron here wishes for her humble AA cups to become C cups…

Even if you don't understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can still look at the diagrams

I don't really know what to say about this one

I don’t really know what to say about this one

And at last, as we were leaving, we came upon this – where you can have your photo taken as a baby groping your mother’s breast. Why not?

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And that is that for my fun-filled Saturday in Komaki! I hope you enjoyed it.

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There are many interesting aspects to Japanese culture. We can help you discover it.

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